Many films have been made about Christian ministry to those considered “broken” and in need of salvation, and in recent years, the genre has included stories of camps designed to cure “gay affliction” through the Word of the Lord. But those films were mostly documentaries or caricaturish (and wickedly funny) satires; understandably, none showed much sympathy for the proprietors of such retreats. Robert Cary’s Save Me shares with those films a goal—to shine a light on the wrong-headedness of “ex-gay” ministry—but takes a subtler tack, using a candle instead of a floodlight. In so doing, Cary (Ira and Abby) and screenwriter Robert Desiderio have crafted a film that stands the best chance of winning the hearts and minds of those who now embrace the gay “recovery” movement.
Chad Allen stars as Mark, a gay man who, at the film’s outset, crashes and burns with an altered-state tryst followed by a suicide attempt. When his brother pays for two months at Genesis House—a Christian retreat in New Mexico—Mark grudgingly gets with the program of husband-and-wife team Gayle (Judith Light) and Ted (Stephen Lang). “I don’t change people,” says Gayle, who prides herself—and the House she and her husband have built—on not brainwashing their clients. “I try to show them how to get closer to Jesus Christ. And let them make their own way.” But just as her gay clientele are deluding themselves, Gayle cannot confront her own neuroses: she’s compelled to enact and reenact salvation in a fruitless attempt to fill the void left when her gay son committed suicide.
The film's niche audience of LGBT viewers has been programmed to expect shaky acting and production values from many gay dramas, but the handsomely produced Save Me comes through with a fine cast, detailed production design, and a delicate dramatic touch. Cary and Desiderio resolutely avoid easy clichés: they’re interested in the sincere point of view of the counselors. Though one could argue it’s a bit of a cop-out to make Gayle’s strong motivation as psychological as it is religious, Ted is allowed to see matters in grey rather than black and white.
Save Me revolves around a romance, between Mark and fellow resident Scott (Robert Gant of Queer as Folk), but Desiderio is careful to demonstrate that both tortured souls set out determined to overcome what they see as being against God’s Word. “This place is good. These people are good,” one insists to the other. “This thing that’s happening between us—this is not His plan.” The acting is solid all around, but special props are owed to Lang and Light, an actress who has heretofore made little impression on the big screen but delivers remarkably lived-in work here.
The film includes swatches of theological debate (touching on the same scriptural touchstones addressed in For the Bible Tells Me So) that press familiar buttons without demonizing those still clinging selectively to the Old Testament. Gayle’s terrible intolerance of homosexuality doesn’t simply define her as black-hearted; she remains a sympathetic Samaritan capable of good works (including healing the drug addicted). And even if she will not be moved from her point of view, Genesis House works in mysterious ways to give new life to men broken not by homosexuality but homophobia.